If you are a gardener and a cook, pesto is one of those things that you should know how to make. The combination of sweet basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil is classic. Like many great recipes, this one is basic and only takes a few minutes. And yet, it’s taken me several tries to perfect pesto. Sometimes the pesto has been a little flat, and sometimes the flavor of the basil has been a bit bitter and overpowering. Has that happened to you? Irritating, isn’t it. Pesto is perfect when the consistency is almost smooth and the quartet of flavors is balanced.
A little experimentation in the kitchen resulted in the perfect pesto I was craving. You must start with the freshest ingredients possible, of course. I grow garlic every winter, and sweet basil from seed under my tomato plants, because garlic and tomatoes are great companions in the garden. Fresh sweet basil is usually available at the market as well. Starting fresh, my secrets are simple, but make a big difference. Once you get the basil into the kitchen, plunge it into an ice water bath. Let the basil soak until you are ready to use it. This crisps the basil and draws a little of the bitter oils from it. Just before you are ready to mix up the pesto, take the basil out of its chilly bath, remove the stems, and wrap the tender, perfumed leaves in paper towels to dry.
Second, while you are soaking the basil, toast the pine nuts in the oven at 350 degrees for 3-4 minutes. Watch them carefully, because they will be wonderfully golden one minute, and a few seconds later, they will be burnt! Toasting the pine nuts brings out their flavor and makes the pesto more complex. Finally, make sure that you use a good quality Parmesan cheese, and grate it by hand–I use a microplane so the cheese is light and fine. The Parmesan you purchase already grated works great for some dishes, but it just doesn’t work as well in this instance.
Respecting your ingredients and taking a few extra minutes to prepare them results in perfect pesto that is bursting with garden flavor. We enjoy it spread on bruschetta and finished with a little more Parmesan and a sprinkling of sea salt. It’s also great as a sauce for pasta and to add flavor to soups and stews. Try it on pizza, maybe with figs and bacon and a little goat cheese. I make pesto all summer, freeze it in ice cube trays and then pop the cubes out and store them frozen in a plastic bag so the pesto is ready to use whenever we need.
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 scant cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly chopped
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp. olive oil
Follow my three secrets to prepare the ingredients. Combine all ingredients in the bowl of your food processor or a blender. Process until the pesto is thoroughly pureed, about 10-15 seconds. Voila!